Written by: John Sullivan, Project Manager of Business Partnerships, and Lindsay White, Communications Manager, both of the Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan (WIN)
DETROIT – Taking a look at the computer science industry today, the very low percentage of women in tech-related occupations is apparent. According to an article in Forbes, 92 percent of programmers are men. But, it has not always been this way.
As truth-based stories such as the recent film Hidden Figures show, some of the first computing pioneers were women, and for a long time, the number of women in computer science was growing.
In the 1960s, women were the center of the computing world, and the percentage of women in computer science was rising concurrently with the percentage of women in fields such as medicine, law, and physical sciences.
But unlike other fields, by the mid-1980s, the percentage of women studying computer science very clearly declined, while women in other fields continuously increased.[1}
Why did women seemingly lose interest in computer science alone, while their interest in other fields of study continued on an upward trend all surrounding the same point in time on the graph above?
According to “When Women Stopped Coding,” 1984 is the year that the personal computer became popular in U.S. homes. Anyone who was financially able could purchase a personal computer, however, advertisements for early home computers heavily targeted boys, and were marketed similarly to toy trucks and other traditionally “male” toys. In line with the idea that computers were toys for boys, the idea of the male computer geek became glorified in movies, TV commercials, and more, leaving out the female population entirely.
While personal computer sales are certainly not the sole reason that women in computer science decreased at this time, the share of women in computer science plummets at the same time that personal computers began showing up in notable numbers in U.S. homes, which indicates that the marketing strategy and “male computer nerd” image likely infiltrated the workforce as well.
Moving forward, how do we help to diversify the tech industry when these stereotypes have become engrained in modern society?
Although some universities and colleges are finding approaches such as scholarships and initiatives to increase the number of women pursuing degrees in computer science (Harvey Mudd College, for example), more than 84 percent of undergraduates who major in computer science are men nationwide, according to the Computing Research Association.
But, there are ways that educational partners can collaborate with workforce partners like the Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan (WIN), employers, and other community stakeholders to educate women (and other underrepresented groups in tech) about the many in-demand careers that will be available with a computer science/tech degree in hand.
According to Erika Carlson, Director of Apprenticeship and Training, Detroit Labs, and Co-Founder of Girl Develop It – Detroit, the focus on the pipeline in diversifying tech also presents challenges.
“In order to build a diverse tech workforce, we need to start with a diverse pool of talent,” explains Carlson. “However, pipeline-centered efforts tend to ignore what happens after those people get into the field. Women tend to drop out of technical careers at a much higher rate than men do. Why? There is a serious lack of visible role models who are women and minorities – especially in leadership positions.”
Efforts by WIN to provide high-level data and research to employers on workforce trends, as well as initiatives in southeast Michigan such as MI Bright Future (a highly successful community-development platform for students and educators to learn about and connect with local employers and community mentors) and Apprenti (a registered IT apprenticeship program recently brought to Michigan that aims to bolster the number of women, minorities, and veterans in tech), are some of the many opportunities to inform the future workforce of the jobs that they can thrive in.
With an increasing number of new computing jobs offered by businesses nationwide and in Michigan, and small numbers of computer science graduates available to fill these jobs, it is essential that the small percentage of women among computer science graduates increases to help prevent the computing gender gap from widening. By continuing to show women and minorities in leadership positions related to computer science and tech, eliminating the stereotype that these are “boy jobs,” and encouraging young women to pursue degrees in computer science and tech, we find ourselves in a position to start filling the inevitable lack of workers that are needed to fill new, in-demand jobs in this industry.
This guest blog was provided by WIN. Learn more about WIN by visiting: www.win-semich.org.
 When Women Stopped Coding: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/10/21/357629765/when-women-stopped-coding
 Most computer science majors in the U.S. are men. Not so at Harvey Mudd: http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-harvey-mudd-tech-women-adv-snap-story.html